Magazine article National Parks

Claiming the Rock

Magazine article National Parks

Claiming the Rock

Article excerpt

THEY EMBARKED ON A THREE-MASTED BOAT, intent on claiming what they saw as rightfully theirs. The problem was that the owner of the Monte Cristo had agreed only to take them on a tour around Alcatraz Island - he didn't plan to dock. So as the ship drew near, Richard Oakes, a Mohawk, decided to dive into the waters of San Francisco Bay. Four others would soon follow, and as the swimmers reached the island, the passengers cheered.

After centuries of violence, disease, land grabs, brutal assimilation policies and humiliation, this felt like a victory for the small group of American Indians. The U.S. Coast Guard rounded up the swimmers and brought them back to the mainland, but 11 days later, on Nov. 20,1969, another boat sailed to Alcatraz and 79 people jump-started an occupation that would last 19 months.

The notorious prison had closed in 1963. A handful of Sioux occupied the island for a few hours in 1964, claiming the land under the provisions of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which authorized Indians to settle land unused by the government. Their assertion was ignored, and the city of San Francisco endorsed a wealthy developer's bid to turn the island into a theme park and shopping center. Many locals protested the move. Indians in the Bay Area viewed it as an affront.

"It was like another broken treaty, smack in our face," said LaNada War Jack, who mobilized university students to join the occupation. "So we said, 'We're going to have to take it back.'"

The United States' efforts to assimilate American Indians had accelerated in the previous decades. Starting in the 1940s, the government adopted a series of laws and policies that aimed to end tribes' special status, subjecting American Indians to state and federal laws and withdrawing aid and services to people living on reservations. Then in the mid-1950s, the government began to encourage them to leave their reservations, acquire professional skills and relocate to the country's urban centers. There, few were able to find decentpaying jobs, and poverty, culture shock and racial prejudice were the norm. Many settled in the San Francisco area, which became a hub of Indian activism.

The Alcatraz takeover was heavy on parody. Organizers created a mock "Bureau of Caucasian Affairs" and issued a proclamation offering $24 in "glass beads and red cloth" for the island. The document went on to note the many similarities between Alcatraz and the typical Indian reservation: Both have rocky and nonproductive soil, they wrote, and are "isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation."

"We used satire and humor," said Adam Fortunate Eagle, one of the early organizers. "We were warriors without weapons."

The occupiers included students and families with children; many did not expect to stay long. "We didn't bring a whole lot except ourselves and sleeping bags," said Edward Castillo, then a young instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The following days were difficult because a Coast Guard blockade prevented food supplies from reaching the island. But as Thanksgiving approached, the embargo was lifted and supplies started pouring in. The occupation received broad support. John Cantwell, an Alcatraz ranger who was about 10 at the time, remembers his parents donating canned goods. Rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival gave the occupiers money to buy a supply boat.

Federal authorities adopted a benevolent approach. …

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